For decades I have realized that the Army’s institutional memory is very short. Nevertheless, on buying a Hot Weather BDU in 1986 I was astonished to find that the trousers had large reinforcing patches covering the crotch and buttocks, as pictured in Fig. 12-1.
Fig. 12-1. Skin-disease-promoting reinforcements on crotch and buttocks of the Hot Weather BDU adopted in 1984, with stitch lines highlighted by white flour paste. The sewn-on reinforcements on knees and elbows also are more harmful than helpful to the soldier’s comfort, health, and morale.
Light Weight BDUs, often called Desert BDUs, supplied in 1990 for General Norman Schwarzkopf’s troops in the Persian Gulf War had no stitched-on reinforcements and were made of 100% cotton cloth. He ordered those improved desert uniforms while uniquely empowered by President Bush to equip and deploy his forces to defeat Saddam Hussein’s invading army in Kuwait. Some 500,000 with desert camouflage were produced, all without reinforcements. But they were not standardized. So, as was to be expected, shortly after General Schwarzkopf retired the production of Desert BDUs without reinforcements was terminated, and even BDUs with desert camouflage were made of more durable cloth than cotton and had the usual stitched-on reinforcements. Generals come and go; Army bureaucracies maintain their established policies and required procedures.
During and for years after the Gulf War the only BDUs with woodland camouflage that were manufactured had six sewn-on large reinforcements. Light Weight BDUs without reinforcements and with woodland camouflage would be even more useful for preserving the health and morale of soldiers in the humid tropics than the ones with no reinforcements and desert camouflage were for desert fighters.
Significantly, while in Israel in 1969 exchanging defense information I noted that Israeli uniforms had no reinforcements. Israeli generals of course know that uniforms with sewn-on reinforcements last longer than uniforms without such uncomfortable, hot, skin-disease-promoting additions, and therefore their long-term monetary cost is less. But those experienced commanders take into account the costs to their men’s comfort, health, and morale. So do the generals of poor jungle countries, officers who rarely have ordered the production of uniforms with any reinforcements, and never with reinforcements over crotch and buttocks.
The last of the Light Weight BDUs without reinforcements were issued by the Central Issue Facility, U.S. Army Special Warfare Center, to soldiers and others in Panama, Guam, and Central and South America. By 1993 only Hot Weather BDUs with the six stitched-on big reinforcements were available for issue, even to Special Forces soldiers involved in jungle operations.
The officers and civil servants who normally decide which uniforms are produced continue to base their decisions primarily on initial and replacement dollar costs. They give little weight to the difficult-to-estimate costs for treating casualties caused by hot, slow-to-dry uniforms, or to the reduced morale and combat effectiveness of our soldiers wearing uncomfortable uniforms, especially during prolonged combat operations.
To lessen the incidence and severity of skin diseases, our experienced jungle fighters in World War II and in Vietnam learned to wear no underwear. In the humid tropics underwear contributes to keeping skin damp and hot. Dampness and heat promote skin infections, especially on feet and in the crotch area. Thus in combat veteran Thomas J. Cutler’s Brown Water, Black Berets (an authoritative book which details operations of the U.S. Navy’s riverine forces in Vietnam, published in 1988 by the Naval Institute Press), on page 253 the author states that one of the lessons learned in Operation River Raider was “...the realization that troops should not wear underwear while operating in this moist climate.”
The large reinforcements pictured in Fig. 12-1 guarantee that in the humid tropics the wearer of versions of the 1984 Hot Weather BDU, even with no underwear at all, will have much more damp, skin-disease-promo-ting cloth covering his crotch and buttocks than if he wore summer underwear with any other jungle uniform in history. Furthermore, those reinforcements also make it impossible for a soldier in the field to wash clean his uniform’s most critical area. All too frequently diarrhea or fear causes a man in combat to foul his trousers. A soldier in the field can’t wash out all of the excrement or stinking jungle mud sure to be trapped between those two sewn-together large layers of stout cloth, particularly over his anal area. The laundry and resupply services which were provided for most of our combat troops in Vietnam were luxuries unlikely to be available to our or friendly soldiers in future prolonged tropical conflicts.
The knee and elbow reinforcements on the current Hot Weather Battledress Uniform also promote skin disease and increase heat stress.
To learn why the Army had adopted this casualty-guaranteeing uniform and was issuing several other personal items less serviceable in jungles than their counterparts were in Vietnam, in October of 1989 I went to the Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center of the U.S. Army Troop Support Command. At that well known Army facility near Boston I confirmed my understanding that Natick no longer was initiating major changes in uniforms and equipment. Among the Natick specialists with whom I talked — conscientious people, but lacking personal jungle experience — was Rosemary Lomba. (In 1993 she was “the designer of record for all BDUs and is probably the most respected Clothing Designer at Natick RDE Center,” according to an informative letter I received in October, 1993 from Neil E. Smedstad, Chief, Combat Clothing and Equipment Section at Natick RDE Center.) Ms. Lomba said that the decision to put the big crotch/seat reinforcements, plus knee and elbow reinforcements, on the Hot Weather BDU resulted from favorable response to such reinforcements on the BDU worn in Europe and other temperate lands. (A total of 2.8 square feet of reinforcements cover the knees and elbows of my Hot Weather BDU.) She also told me that she had heard of no jungle testing of this current jungle uniform prior to its adoption in 1984, and that she understood the main testing took place in the Hawaiian Islands and California. I believe that this worsening of jungle uniforms resulted because there was no rigorous jungle testing directly comparing different uniform types while realistically simulating jungle combat conditions, observed by expert dermatologists and infantry officers with combat experience.
Later I learned that the overriding reason for those sewed-on reinforcements is to save money by producing uniforms that last longer. Estimated costs of the soldier’s health, comfort, morale, and combat effectiveness are secondary considerations. In Neil Smedstad’s above-mentioned letter to me he stated: “Cost [monetary] must always be considered since in the case of the Hot Weather BDUs, soldiers are required to buy their replacement uniforms after their initial issue of two in the clothing bag.”
Clothing bag costs are publicized each year for all items, along with clothing replacement allowances. “The annual basic replacement allowance” specified in the “1997 male clothing bag” was only $298.50. A typical soldier must maintain two “enhanced Hot Weather Battle Dress Uniforms”, each costing $23.40 for the coat and $26.35 for the trousers. One of those uniforms is supposed to last a year before it is worn out. So the soldier each fiscal year receives a clothing replacement allowance for one worn-out enhanced Hot Weather BDU of $23.40 plus $26.35. This $49.75 is almost 17% of his total annual basic replacement allowance. Soldiers receive less pay and are harder on their clothes than are the majority of civilian workers. No wonder most soldiers questioned after peacetime field tests of durable Hot Weather BUDs with six big reinforcements said that they preferred them.
Some of the Colorado National Guard soldiers who wore reinforced Hot Weather BDUs while on 1987 wet season maneuvers in Panama told me that they believed, as I do, that the Army is overly concerned with avoiding the dollar costs of replacing torn uniforms and doesn’t care enough about the soldier’s welfare. As Captain Carpenter, Medical Corps, told me in Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive, “The military has itself to blame for not cranking in cost items that are inexact in terms of [dollar] prices.” Those omitted costs certainly should include estimated costs of avoidable medical treatments, loss of time, reduced combat effectiveness, and worsened morale.
Most Americans, including most Army officers, know little about what is good and what is bad in a jungle uniform. Therefore, before recounting more of the remarkable features of the current Hot Weather BDU, I will describe both the mosquito-protective yet cool Byrd Cloth Uniform worn by American infantrymen in Burma toward the end of World War II, and the excellent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) uniform.